A review of The Price of Motherhood. By Ann Crittenden.

Metropolitan Books, 2001.

Motherhood is the most under-valued job in the Western world today, argues economics journalist Ann Crittenden. While everyone may give lip service to the values of motherhood, the truth is, it is an unappreciated and un-rewarded job. Governments especially may sing the praises of mothering, but they do very little to actually support mothers.

Indeed, economists in particular pay little or no attention to the many important contributions made by mothers to society. If the input they made were included in our Gross Domestic Product calculations, the figures would be vastly different. As Crittenden notes, in the modern world, two thirds of all wealth is created by “human skills, creativity, and enterprise – what is known as ‘social capital’.” That makes parents the major wealth producers in most Western economies.

Not only does home care work receive no economic recognition, in many cases it is actually penalised. Women in the paid work force usually get subsidized day care, while mums who stay at home get nothing. This is but one example of how stay-at-home mums are discriminated against in most Western nations.

The value of a mother to a community is in many ways immeasurable. To raise and nurture the next generation, training them to become model citizens of the future, is no mean task. It takes years of sacrifice, commitment and fortitude. Yet this job goes unrecognised and under-praised.

Mothers on average are estimated to work more than eighty hours a week, more than anyone else in the economy. Yet all this labor is counted as nothing. As Crittenden explains, in a “culture that measures worth and achievement almost solely in terms of money, the intensive work of rearing responsible adults counts for little”.

It is only when we put it in business terms that the picture becomes more clear. We should value a mother’s work “at the level of a middle manager, plus the additional occasional services of a psychologist, a financial planner, a chauffeur, and so on.”  Indeed, a mum is also a chef, a teacher, a nurse, a child care worker, a sports coordinator, a cleaner, a wardrobe consultant, and much more. What wages in the paid workplace would a person with these combined talents bring in?

Crittenden cites the research of Duncan Ironmonger and other Australians which has calculated the value of unpaid work done in the home to be equivalent to one half to two thirds of the GDP.

And of even more importance, a mother moulds and shapes a child’s character, hopefully rounding off the rough edges, curbing bad habits and promoting good ones. Children are being prepared for the role of a responsible citizen, and no social worker or government bureaucrat can replace a mother (and a father) in this regard.

However, Crittenden is certainly no conservative, and she shares most of the major feminist beliefs. For example, she argues for universal pre-school, more subsidised day care places, more workplace flexibility. All these are common feminist proposals. But she does recognise, unlike many feminists, that mothers really are important, and they deserve social, political and economic support.

Her feminist perspective shows up in many places. For example, she brings up the usual complaint about “deadbeat dads”, that divorced men are often not making their alimony or child support payments. Yet she does not mention that the reason this is often the case is that many men are denied access to their own children, or even if they are allowed visiting time, many mums make it very difficult for them to do so. So the issue cuts both ways. Although it may not be right, one can understand a father being hesitant about dishing out money for the children he is often denied access to.

But Crittenden does point out that feminists have not always helped the lot of mothers. The truth is, the improvement of the conditions of motherhood, and a renewed push to revalue mothers, is just not on the feminist agenda. For too long feminists have argued that the only good woman is a career woman, and motherhood and homemaking are oppressive jobs, not worthy of liberated women. Says Crittenden, “women may have come a long way, but mothers have a lot further to go”.

And she criticises conservatives for talking family values, but not really doing much to help mothers. To be fair, however, many conservative pro-family organisations have argued for years for proper recognition and support of motherhood. In Australia groups like the Australian Family Association have long argued that a homemaker’s allowance, or similar scheme, is needed to give mothers genuine choice in how they look after their own children.

Thus this book is neither wholly feminist nor wholly conservative, (although it clearly is closer to the feminist worldview). But it is refreshing for taking motherhood seriously, and for standing up for mothers when so few others actually are. And whether all her proposals to relieve mothers (especially in terms of financial help) are the best options or not, at least she is giving in-principle support for the invaluable job mothers perform.

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